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George Zornick | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Delaware AG Biden: The Banks Aren't Scared of Us

As a potential federal settlement with five major banks nears, progressives on and off Capitol Hill have been sounding alarms about the apparent lack of punitive action and aid for homeowners, along with the civil immunity the deal may grant banks.

President Obama made things really interesting during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, declining to mention the settlement but announcing a program designed to help homeowners refinance troubled mortgages and, most notably, a new task force to investigate mortgage fraud, headed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The new programs have enormous potential to both help homeowners and hold banks accountable, but there are many important questions that need to be answered about the task force in particular. Who will staff it? How seriously will it pursue fraud charges, given that some of the already appointed members have so far failed to do so? If the settlement is approved, how would any immunity granted in that deal impact the task force’s work?

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who has said he will not support the deal as drafted because it would limit the mortgage fraud investigations he is pursuing in his state, appeared on Dylan Ratigan yesterday in a fascinating interview on these very issues.

Biden suggested he was asked to join the task force, but spoke to several concerns he had about the structure. “I applaud the president’s comments last night, and the resolve to continue investigations,” he said. “[B]ut the questions I have [are]: how many FBI agents are you going to put on it? How many investigators are you going to put on it? How many prosecutors are you going to put on it? Those are the hard-scrabble questions I have. I told those folks that I’m willing to work with them on this, and I’m happy to do it, and I hope we’ll get somewhere on this.”

Earlier in the interview, Biden reiterated his strong opposition to any immunity for the banks, and said, “We need to act and investigate, file cases, file complaints, seek indictments, if the facts take us there. We need to act.”

In perhaps his most striking comments, Biden also said he believes the banks aren’t even worried about any of these investigations. “The too-big-to-fail banks believe that many of us on the enforcement side are as scared, or more scared, than they are of peeling back this onion,” he said. “The too-big-to-fail banks simply don’t believe we have the guts to get to the bottom of this.”

You can watch the full interview here, which I would recommend:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Federal Park Police Will Start Citing Occupy DC Protesters

Since October, the federal Park Police—who oversee the space where DC’s two Occupy encampments at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza—have admirably refused to evict the protesters.

There have been occasional confrontations, like when the protesters at McPherson Square tried to literally build a house, but for the most part, the Occupy encampments have been allowed to exist peacefully.

Federal regulations prohibit camping at the two locations, but Occupiers have been sleeping in tents for months. The Park Service has said they consider this more of a twenty-four-hour vigil—similar to the 1979 farmworkers demonstration—than a true campground, and that the Occupiers must receive some First Amendment considerations and be spared a forcible eviction.

This is laudable, but admittedly a fine line to walk, and one that Congressional Republicans are more than happy to explore. At a hearing yesterday of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Representative Darrell Issa, Republicans blistered Park Service representatives over this claim, and gamely tried to get the Park Service to admit that President Obama was behind it all.

The Park Service, for the most part, held the line. “Each of our First Amendment demonstrations [is] a little bit unique. And this one is, let’s say, unprecedented. The core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site,” National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis said. “We felt that going in right away and enforcing the regulations against camping could potentially incite a reaction on their part that would result in possible injury or property damage.”

But after the hearing, a federal official told the Washington Post that the Park Service will start issuing citations to Occupiers who are sleeping in the parks. It will apparently try to enforce the camping ban by “encouraging” people to sleep elsewhere, and issuing tickets if they don’t, but will not attempt to forcibly evict the entire encampment.

That’s the only real news to come out of yesterday’s hearing—the rest was just the predictable grandstanding by Republican members of the committee. There was one moment of (unintentional) levity, however, when freshman Tea Party Representative Trey Gowdy cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a reason the Occupiers should immediately be locked up:

 

In State of the Union, Obama Stands Up for Homeowners


President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 24, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama announced an important initiative to address the housing crisis: one that will help affected homeowners while investigating and punishing those who helped create the problem.

A new mortgage crisis unit, made of up state and federal officials, which will look into wrongdoing by banks in the area of real estate lending. The unit will be headed by Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York and a solid advocate for being tough on the banks for their role in the mortgage crisis.

“This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans,” Obama said in his address.

The unit will not supersede efforts by the Justice Department in this area (to the extent there are any) but will operate as part of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Justice officials will still be involved, however, according to the Huffington Post, which first obtained details of the effort from the White House. In addition to Schneiderman, the unit will be co-chaired by Lanny Breuer of the Department of Justice; Robert Khuzami, director of enforcement at the SEC; John Walsh, a US attorney in Colorado; and Tony West, also of the Justice Department.

In a statement last night, Schneiderman promised tough investigations.

“The American people deserve a robust and comprehensive investigation into the global financial meltdown to ensure nothing like it ever happens again, and today’s announcement is a major step in the right direction,” he said. “In coordination with our federal partners, our office will continue its steadfast commitment to holding those responsible for the economic crisis accountable, providing meaningful relief for homeowners commensurate with the scale of the misconduct, and getting our economy moving again.”

As far as relief for homeowners, Obama made additional news last night, announcing additional federal efforts to help homeowners—though they must be current on their mortgage. A new federal program will allow those homeowners to refinance their mortgage at lower rates, and a federal fee on banks will help pay for the assistance.

“I’m sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates. No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks,” Obama said.

“Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a Government and a financial system that do the same,” he continued. “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.”

Some may bristle at only helping homeowners that are current on their mortgages—and avoiding those in the most trouble. The administration, however, is clearly trying to thread a needle with its “no bailout, no handout” framing. Recall that the Tea Party movement was ostensibly kicked off by a Rick Santelli rant about helping people with their mortgages.

We’ve been reporting this week on a pending settlement with banks over mortgage fraud, and on a progressive push to ensure the settlement provides real assistance to homeowners and actually holds banks accountable.

The same group leading that push praised the creation of the mortgage crisis unit last night. “We applaud the President for siding with American homeowners and taxpayers and sending a message that Wall Street banks are not above the law and will be held accountable for their actions that crashed the economy,” said a statement from The Campaign for a Fair Settlement. “The President faced significant pressure from Wall Street CEOs to let the banks off the hook. By creating the mortgage crisis unit, President Obama showed real leadership—and proved that his top priority is fixing the economy for working Americans.”

How the new initiatives announced last night will impact the settlement, if at all, are impossible to tell for now. But the campaign is not letting the new efforts be an excuse not to have a strong settlement with the banks. “While the creation of this unit is a clear victory, we still have concerns about the servicing deal on the table with States.” 

Update: A Proposed Mortgage Fraud Settlement Approaches

There is now no doubt that a federal settlement with five major banks over mortgage foreclosure fraud is in the end stages. A meeting took place yesterday in Chicago between the administration and representatives of every Democratic attorney general in the country, and Republican attorneys general held a conference call to discuss their strategy toward the deal as well.

The headline out of yesterday’s meeting was a statement by Iowa’s attorney general, Tom Miller, saying, “We have not yet reached an agreement with the nation’s five largest servicers, and we won’t reach a settlement any time this week.”

If opponents to the deal were heartened, they shouldn’t be. Miller also added that issues were still be resolved, and that “this is one step along the way, and it was a very productive day.” At some point relatively soon, a proposed deal will be announced. The question now is how many attorneys general go along with it, and if public pressure will convince the administration to revisit their strategy.

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden is the only one so far to comment on the specific deal being discussed now—and, without citing a specific reason, says his state will reject it as drafted.

The other attorneys general who are investigating mortgage fraud, or have said they plan to—something that would be forbidden by this rumored deal—haven’t commented yet, but some have suggested they’re not on board. A spokesperson for California Attorney General Kamala Harris said yesterday that “Attorney General Harris has consistently and repeatedly expressed concern about protecting her ability to investigate wrongdoing in the mortgage arena, and that remains a key lens through which she will evaluate any proposals.”

Meanwhile, the public pressure continues. Outside yesterday’s meeting in Chicago, protesters called “No sweetheart deals” and “Protect our homes.” The progressive outcry and corresponding petition drive we covered yesterday continues, and has received good press coverage in the mainstream media.

Also yesterday, the group Judicial Watch announced yesterday that it has filed a Freedom of Information Lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for documents pertaining to fraud by these large banks. If truly damaging is ultimately made public, it could deeply energize the public opposition to civil immunity.

And here’s one thing to watch for tonight in the State of the Union address: I’ve heard that Obama might devote a couple lines to the settlement. I personally don’t think he will, given that the negotiations are still under way, but if he does, we’ll know the administration is very serious about pushing this deal through.

Obama Is on the Brink of a Settlement With the Big Banks—and Progressives Are Furious

For months, a massive federal settlement with big Wall Street banks over their role in the mortgage crisis has been in the offing. The rumored details have always given progressives heartburn: civil immunity, no investigations, inadequate help for homeowners and a small penalty for the banks. Now, on the eve President Obama’s State of the Union address—in which he plans to further advance a populist message against big money and income inequality—the deal may be here, and it’s every bit as ugly as progressives feared.

The Associated Press reports that a proposed deal could be announced within weeks. Five banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC)—would pay the federal government $25 billion. About $17 billion would be used to reduce the principal that some struggling homeowners owe, $5 billion more would be used for future federal and state programs and $3 billion would be used to help homeowners refinance at 5.25 percent. Civil immunity would be granted to the banks for any role in foreclosure fraud, and there would be no investigations.

There are several reasons why this is could be a terrible deal. For one, the dollar amount is inadequate in relation to both the tremendous loss of wealth via mortgage fraud and the hefty balance sheets of these massive companies. Furthermore, the banks might be allowed to use investor money instead of their own funds—this makes the penalty even lower. Beyond all that: it’s extremely hard to justify the absence of investigations and punishment for mortgage fraud that was so widespread and so damaging to people’s lives.

There are also many other, more serious problems besides a lack of punitive action. The small amount of money—and the federal government’s recent inability to truly help underwater mortgage holders, of which there are currently 11 million—means that the victims of mortgage fraud might not see enough relief. And perhaps most importantly, with no real punishment for widespread damaging fraud, what are the incentives on Wall Street not to engage in similarly destructive practices once again?

On a major conference call this morning, many leading progressive voices inside Washington and out blasted the deal.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio characterized the rumored deal as “not much more than a slap on the wrist,” and added that while banks were always know to be too big to fail, they were now apparently “too big to jail.”

“When laws are broken there need to be full investigations,” Brown said. “Wall Street should not get another bailout.”

Brown urged Obama to reject the deal and order investigations into the banks’ practices immediately. Simon Johnson, an economist at MIT and well-known progressive voice, also called for no deal and immediate investigations.

“This is not just the right thing do, and not just good politics, it’s good economics,” Johnson said. “What’s at stake here is the rule of law.”

Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, blasted the rumored deal as well and urged the administration to consider the political optics.

“No one who robbed a bank would be offered immunity, a modest fine, and no admission of guilt before there was an investigation,” Borosage said. “Americans are increasingly cynical with the ability of democracy to deal with special interests.

“The president’s campaign will sensibly highlight his commitment to fairer rules,” he continued. “Needless to say, a sweetheart deal with the banks will contrast with that.”

As we noted last week, many progressive groups have begun a massive petition drive to push back against the settlement and demand fair investigations. Moreover, attorneys general in California, New York, Delaware, Nevada and Massachusetts have previously said they won’t be a part of any deal that offers civil immunity.

So the deal is far from done—but it’s certainly moving towards an undesirable conclusion. We’ll have plenty more in this space all week.

Eleven Shocking Facts About Campaign Finance

It’s been two years since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, allowing a torrent of secret money to flow into the political process.

To be clear, the corrupting influence of big money was distorting the democratic process for years before that decision. But it unquestionably made the problem worse, exacerbating both the volume and secrecy of campaign donations.

Here’s eleven disturbing facts about the extent to which money is playing an increasing role in our politics:

    The amount of independent expenditure and electioneering communication spending by outside groups has quadrupled since 2006. [Center for Responsive Politics]

    The percentage of spending coming from groups that do not disclose their donors has risen from 1 percent to 47 percent since the 2006 mid-term elections. [Center for Responsive Politics]

    Campaign receipts for members of the House of Representatives totaled $1.9 billion in 2010—up from $781 million in 1998. [Committee for Economic Development]

    Outside groups spent more on political advertising in 2010 than party committees—for the first time in at least two decades. [Center for Responsive Politics]

    A shocking 72 percent of political advertising by outside groups in 2010 came from sources that were prohibited from spending money in 2006. [Committee for Economic Development]

    In 2004, 97.9 percent of outside groups disclosed their donors. In 2010, 34.0 percent did. [Committee for Economic Development]

    In 2010, the US Chamber of Commerce spent $31,207,114 in electioneering communications. The contributions for which it disclosed the donors: $0. [Committee for Economic Development]

    Only 26,783 Americans donated more than $10,000 to federal campaigns in 2010—or, about one in 10,000 Americans. Their donations accounted for 24.3 percent of total campaign donations. [Sunlight Foundation]

    Average donation from that elite group was $28,913. (The median individual income in America is $26,364) [Sunlight Foundation]

    Amount the Karl Rove–led Crossroads GPS says it will spend on the 2012 elections: $240 million. [On the Media]

    Amount that President Obama has raised from the financial sector already for his 2012 re-election: $15.6 million [Washington Post]

Progressives to Obama: Don't Protect the Banks

If you listen only to his speeches, President Obama has certainly taken on a more populist and progressive economic message. In December, for example, he called out trickle-down economics, saying “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” In that same speech, the president said that income inequality was the “defining issue of our time” that also “distorts” our democracy.

Those words have at times been matched with action—Obama successfully pressed for extended unemployment insurance in December, and in January, he used controversial recess appointments to staff the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board.

But the administration’s newly found populism has a glaring weak spot: its failure to punish the large financial institutions that helped create the current economic crisis, and the corollary failure to help those hurt most by the mortgage crisis.

In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the administration is trying to protect those large financial institutions by pushing for a nationwide settlement that would let bankers avoid any investigation into the wide-scale mortgage fraud that took place for much of this decade—to say nothing of punishment.

The settlement, which the administration is trying to force upon sometimes unwilling state attorney generals, would force banks to write down the principal on many mortgages—but using bank investor money, not the bank’s own funds. This would lead to less, and lower, write-downs, and wouldn’t ask the banks themselves to sacrifice anything. And given the failures of the administration’s mortgage assistance programs to date, it’s even harder to believe people with underwater mortgages would be helped under a similar federal initiative.

Moreover, the settlement then protects the banks from prosecution over the housing crash forever. As 60 Minutes noted in December, there hasn’t been a single prosecution of a high-ranking executive nor Wall Street firm for their role in the crisis. As Campaign for America’s Future RJ Eskow writes, “[j]ustice isn't served by letting an entire group of wealthy and powerful individuals remain above the law. And justice isn't served when millions of Americans continue to pay the price of financial ruin or hardship for crimes that will forever remain unpunished.”

So today, several progressive groups—The Campaign for America’s Future and MoveOn, Credo, Progressives United, New Bottom Line and Color of Change—is working to deliver petitions to the White House and the Obama campaign office in Chicago demanding that the big banks not be left off the hook. It reads:

We the undersigned urge you, President Obama, to launch an immediate investigation into what the FBI warned was an “epidemic of fraud” that contributed to the housing crisis and threw millions out of their homes. The proposed sweetheart deal that would prevent such an investigation from taking place should be stopped. It is vital that the laws be enforced, that those who broke the law be held accountable—or else Wall Street bankers will feel free to defraud people in the future.

You can view the petition here. We’ll keep you posted in its progress.

Keystone XL Is Dead—Again

For the second time in as many months, the Obama administration has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline—a hugely controversial project that would traverse the length of the country from Nebraska to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying heavy and dirty tar sands oil from deep in Canada.

You’ll recall that, following a summer of protests and civil disobedience, the administration announced in November that it was delaying the project for at least a year, until a less disruptive route around a key aquifer in Nebraska could be studied and proposed. (Many believe this delay would kill the project entirely).

But Republicans successfully revived the project during the end-of-year negotiations on the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance. Democrats desperately wanted these measures, and the final bill included a provision that would force the State Department to issue a decision on Keystone within two months.

Today—less than even one month since the payroll tax cut bill was passed—the State Department announced they were denying the permit. In a statement, President Obama endorsed that decision: “As the State Department made clear last month, the rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment.”

That’s a crucially important point for understanding the politics of this pipeline fiasco. Republicans—or at the very least, the leadership—knew full well that this rushed, two-month review would not lead to a sudden approval of the project. As Obama noted, the State Department said as much in December.

So why did Republicans insist upon its inclusion into the payroll/unemployment debate? Well, for one thing, in case you’ve forgotten the dynamics of that showdown, House Speaker John Boehner was desperate to round up votes for the extensions. Republican leaders were convinced that opposing a payroll tax cut and help for the unemployed was politically toxic, but the Tea Party members of the House didn’t agree. So early on in the process, the Keystone provision was added as a sweetener to bring recalcitrant Republicans on board.

But beyond simply whipping votes, Republicans clearly believe that the Keystone issue is good politics for them. They are happy to make Obama kill it not once but twice, because it allows them to paint him as quashing (allegedly) shovel-ready, job-creating projects just “to protect left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco,” in the typically restrained words of Newt Gingrich.

Obama’s rejection of the pipeline is a vehicle to paint him as a job-killer, at a time when private-sector job growth actually continues to be positive. And behold the mileage they attempted to put on their new ride today, immediately following the announcement.

Here’s Boehner:

“This is not good for our country,” [Boehner] continued. “The president wants to put this off until it’s convenient for him to make a decision. That means after the next election. The fact is the American people are asking the question right now: Where are the jobs? The president’s got an opportunity to create 100,000 new jobs almost immediately.” […]

“The policies that have been implemented by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress they had that preceded us have made the economy worse and have made it more difficult for small businesses to create jobs,” he said.

GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney:

“It shows a President who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy,” the former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential frontrunner said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “If Americans want to understand why unemployment in the United States has been stuck above 8 percent for the longest stretch since the Great Depression, decisions like this one are the place to begin.”

The US Chamber of Commerce:

“This political decision offers hard evidence that creating jobs is not a high priority for this administration,” said Thomas Donahue, the chamber’s chief executive officer. “The president’s decision sends a strong message to the business community and to investors: Keep your money on the sidelines, America is not open for business. By placing politics over policy, the Obama administration is sacrificing tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs in the short term, and many more than that in the long term.”

For the record, the Keystone project would create very few jobs. But it’s easy to sell the construction of such a huge project as a job creator. Republicans, at this point, are much less interested in actually reviving the project—forcing the two-month decision nearly guaranteed its rejection—than they are with empty political theatre around jobs.

This is one of those issues, like say the Bush tax cuts, where both sides think they have a political winner. The White House clearly thinks this is good for them, as it shores up environmentalist voters and helps prove itself to the left at large. (If the Keystone pipeline rejection isn’t included in an Obama campaign blog, e-mail, or stump speech, I’ll give $10 to everyone who reads this blog).

Some progressives are understandably concerned that the White House is being a little too politically clever—that the project will be approved after the election. I’ve seen no evidence this is true, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

But what’s going to happen for at least the next year is a prolonged public debate over whether a small amount of jobs are a worthy price to pay for further destroying the climate, polluting American land and water, and enriching oil companies—with the White House laudably taking the strong position that it’s not.

UPDATE: Talking Point Memo's Brian Beutler spoke to some anonymous GOP aides who confirmed that they preferred beating Obama up on the pipeline rather than actually reviving it:

They relished the idea of forcing President Obama to take a public stand on the pipeline early in an election year, instead of after the election as he had wanted.

And they were eager to force him to choose between supporters in the labor movement, some of whom are pushing for the pipeline, and others in the environmental movement who vehemently oppose it. So they decided to go for it.At the same time they knew he’d likely have to reject the project, and for them that created a dilemma.

“It’s a question of whether we’d rather have the pipeline or the issue,” said one of the GOP aides. Black or white.

In the end they chose the issue.

One wonders how happy big-oil donors to the GOP are with this development. 

The Tea Party Helps Hold the Line on Internet Freedom

Since 2009, the far right has seen the evil hand of government intruding everywhere: healthcare reform was really a diabolical plot to institute government death panels that would kill off the elderly and disabled. Bailing out the auto industry was really a government takeover of a proud American private manufacturing sector. Getting rid of private student loan servicers? Yet another “soviet-style” takeover. And let’s not even get started on cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon emissions—that, of course, is an international plot designed to “control what you can and cannot do.”

So when it comes to the Stop Online Piracy Act and its companion in the Senate, the Protect Intellectual Property Act—bills that, if you haven’t been following, would actually give the government unprecedented power to censor the Internet in the name of preventing piracy—one might reasonably expect politicians who so often channel Tea Party phobias about federal control to oppose them, too.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening. Despite the highly effective protests and seeming turning tide of public opinion, PIPA is still looking at an uphill battle in the Senate. (The White House might end up vetoing the legislation anyhow, but it would no doubt be a setback for Internet freedom supporters if that bill actually cleared the Senate, since it would set a benchmark for the next inevitable battle over intellectual property online).

There are currently only sixteen senators on the record against PIPA:
      Scott Brown
      Maria Cantwell
      Benjamin Cardin
      Tom Coburn
      John Cornyn
      Jim DeMint
      Chuck Grassley
      Orrin Hatch
      Mike Lee
      Jerry Moran
      Rand Paul
      Marco Rubio
      Jeff Sessions
      Mark Udall
      Mark Warner
      Ron Wyden

That’s a pretty low number. There are thirty-eight senators supporting it, with the rest undecided. Now take out the Tea Partiers and their anti-government sympathizers—Coburn, DeMint, Lee, Paul, Rubio—and the list gets even smaller. Throw out frequent but not consistent members of that group—Cornyn, Grassley, Hatch, Moran and Sessions—and it’s smaller yet.

Many of the aforementioned opponents are using the same language to oppose PIPA that they’ve used in railing against other, non-scary administration initiatives.

Here’s Paul, for example: “Blocking entire websites from search engines due to questionable [content] is not only an overreaction to the problem, it essentially gives government and some companies the power to regulate and censor the Internet.” (His father added from the presidential trail this week, “Let me tell you, governments can't protect you from yourself. And they don't need to be taking over the Internet either.”)

Lee talked about “dilution of First Amendment rights” when he opposed it; Moran noted “serious constitutional and security concerns.” On the House side, right-wingers were no less passionate: Representative Paul Ryan, an opponent of SOPA there, said last week that “the internet is one of the most magnificent expressions of freedom and free enterprise in history. It should stay that way.”

It’s tempting to crack a joke about broken clocks being right twice a day, but there’s no reason to believe these concerns about constitutional violations and intrusive government aren’t heartfelt—even if some prior accusations were clearly off the mark, or motivated by politics. They’ve been a royal pain to progressive causes in recent years, but it’s not all bad to have these rigid opponents of government authority in Congress.  

Occupy DC Kicks Off

The day of action kicked off this morning on in front of the Capitol building, where an admittedly paltry number of protesters gathered in light rain. At the moment—around 11 am EST—the Occupiers have splintered off to conduct teach-ins on issues Congress won’t confront and to visit with members.

At noon, there will be what organizers are billing as “the largest national general assembly yet in the American Occupy movement.” You can watch a livestream here.

More teach-ins will continue throughout the afternoon, and the day culminates at 6 pm with an Occupy DC rally and protest, along with a silent vigil for DC voting rights. You can follow my twitter here for some updates and pictures.

There are also some interesting corollary protests going on in Washington today—this morning I attended an anti–death penalty rally in front of the Supreme Court. The crowd was once again sparse, to say the least, but surely motivated—about fifteen demonstrators unfurled a large banner reading “Stop Executions” on the upper steps of the building, and refused to move. They were arrested by the Supreme Court’s police force.

UPDATE: The General Assembly began not long after noon, with many hundreds more Occupiers joining the group from this morning, and pushing the total number up over 400.

The Occupiers huddled in state and city-based groups, and I saw congregations from as far as Texas, Phoenix, Atlanta and North Carolina. Unfortunately, after only about five minutes of proceedings, a minor conflagration with Capitol Police about 50 yards away suddenly became a major object of attention, and easily half of the General Assembly fled to observe and participate.

Retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis, a mainstay at Occupy events, arrived in what appeared to be his Philadelphia police uniform. Capitol Police stopped him, and seemed to have a problem with Lewis entering the protest as a uniformed officer. Occupiers immediately noticed the detention, and a few mic-checks later hundreds of people fled the Assembly and surrounded the Capitol Police and Lewis.

Lewis was ultimately freed by the police, but the Occupiers who came over were determined to keep up the confrontation. Capitol Police were not allowing anyone to block a sidewalk that led away from the Capitol building, so naturally the Occupiers were determined to stand on it. I saw two protestors arrested after charging onto the sidewalk and towards police directly, and many others streaked back and forth across the sidewalk when officers were looking the other way.

The standoff is continuing now, and the Assembly bled away at least a couple hundred attendees to the “battle.” We’ll keep you posted throughout the day.  

(Photo by Loren Fogel / The Nation)

UPDATE 2: Occupy D.C. sends over this video from Senator Carl Levin's office this afternoon, where protestors--including another Occupy celebrity, Sgt. Shamar Thomas--stage a mock-arrest of the Senator for his sponsorship of the National Defense Authorization Act. Protestors enter the office, but then are deemed "terrorists" by a protestor pretending to be Levin, and face indefinite detention until Thomas saves the day:

 So, an interesting day to be a staffer on Capitol Hill, to say the least--as Levin's flustered press people could surely attest. 

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